What helps me step outside my solipsist mind

On days filled with gathering knowledge and learning

Von Holger Windfuhr

Die Rede unten hielt der Art-Direktor Holger Windfuhr vor Absolventen der Studiengänge Kommunikationsdesign der Hochschule Konstanz.

First off: congratulations to the graduating class of 2016!

I have a German name, but was born and raised in the United States. So I hope you will indulge my giving this talk in my mother tongue. I think you deserve a level of eloquence that I cannot live up to in the German language. Plus: it makes me seem more intelligent than I really am.

When Jochen Rädeker asked me if I would like to hold the commencement speech, I said yes without thinking. Only afterwards did I think to myself: “What in God’s name do you people want to hear from me?” Then I recalled a commencement speech by the great author and philosopher David Foster Wallace. His thoughts and perspective really resonated with me, and articulated what, up to that point, I hadn’t been able to. So I decided to adapt part of it. And as Pablo Picasso said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Who am I to question Pablo?

Two young fish are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
The two young fish swim on for a bit. Then one of them looks over at the other and asks
“What the hell is water?”

I’m not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see. Being truly aware of what is around us.

You, like me when I finished design school twenty-five years ago, learned about typography, color theory, printing techniques, html, design history, illustration, photography, and much more. Your days, like mine, were filled with gathering knowledge and learning how to think about design and learning approaches to problem-solving. And you, like me, have enjoyed the support of your parents, grandparents, friends and teachers in getting your education.

The greatest cliché about education is that it is not such much about filling you up with knowledge, but about teaching you how to think. But the cliché about teaching you how to think actually goes much deeper. The really significant education in thinking isn’t just about the capacity to think, but also about learning to exercise some control over how and what you think, and consciously choosing what to think about. To really question and confront the often automatic way we react to opposing views, criticism, annoyances – and daily life. To not get lost in abstract arguments inside our heads instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of us, in the world around us. To not assume that everything is being done specifically to me, and for me or against my ideas.

It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a matter of my choosing to make the effort of somehow getting free of my natural default setting. Which is to be deeply self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of conscious choice in how and what to think about, you will be totally lost.

I can only tell you about my experiences, and what I have found to be true for me. What helps me step outside my solipsist mind when I feel it becoming too small a space.

I grew up in a truly multi-cultural surrounding. A university town where all sorts of nationalities gravitated. Japanese, Chinese, Iraqi, Iranian, German, French – even Swiss. The interest in other cultures and their way of thinking about the world has accompanied me ever since. I was confronted by all sorts of different views – sometimes dramatically different opinions on things I felt very strongly about. They challenged me to think about why I think the way I do.

Back then the Internet as we know it had not yet been born. The single biggest repository of knowledge – but also of bullshit – mankind has ever known. It wasn’t as easy to get lost in the echo chambers of »Facebook« timelines and specialty blogs that simply repeat back to me what I already believe to be true.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Internet and the Internet of Things is one of the greatest developments for our profession – on a societal scale as well. It frees design from adorning paper pulp and film strips to become truly interactive and multimedial on a global scale. It allows us to communicate on an individual level. There has never been a greater opportunity for us. And I say this not in spite of but especially as a member of a publishing group.

But it takes tremendous will to seek out articles and interact with people who have opposing views. To discover how other cultures interpret what is happening in the world, on our continent, in our country. The American view, the English view, the French, Russian, Scandinavian, Chinese view; the intellectual German commentary – and even the less intellectual commentary. But I promise you, it will be worth it. It’s a wellspring for your work, an endless supply of references, juxtapositions and ideas to play with. The intellectual depth will shine through.

Another thing I have found to be true for me: being trusted is everything; especially in our profession, where our opinion isn’t based on a mathematical formula or scientific method. Trust in our professional integrity is the one thing that makes the difference between being able to do great or mediocre work. Trust is what allows us to take risks. But earning that trust also means being able to put yourself into someone else’s position and consider their criteria for good work. What they need it to do and how they need to communicate with their audience and who else they turn to in judging the quality of design. And who they need to impress, both inside and outside the company.

Be curious. Not just about what new fonts are coming out, what the coolest parallax scrolls are or what new independent magazines are being published. They are a means to an end. The end is what and how we want to communicate. What audience are we communicating to? The context in which we are communicating. The awareness of societal shifts, bumps and grinds. Awareness of what and who is affecting society, and why. Awareness in not believing the hype.

It is in essence about the real value of a real education. It has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness. Awareness of what is in plain sight all around us, all the time. That we have to keep rediscovering and reminding ourselves over and over:
„This is water.“
„This is water.“

I wish you all great success.

»Sprache für die Form«, Doppelausgabe Nr. 8 und 9, Herbst 2016